Thursday, August 6, 2015

Forensic Literature: A Review of Val McDermid's Forensics and Judy Blume's In The Unlikely Event

Forensics by Val McDermid - Nonfiction - Grove Press 2015

Disclosure: Free pre-publication copy received from the publisher in exchange for review/promotion

Val McDermid is a Scottish crime writer, the multiple best-selling author of more than 30 books, including The Wire in the Blood, A Darker Domain, and The Skeleton Road. Now she has written a nonfiction primer about forensics, covering in each chapter a different discipline of the field: crime scene investigation, fire investigation, entomology, forensic pathology, blood spatter, facial reconstruction, fingerprint analysis, digital forensics, anthropology, and forensic psychology. In each chapter McDermid highlights historic events in the founding of the scientific discipline, taking readers through the crimes where the scientific methodology was first used to catch the killers and convict them in court. McDermid introduces readers to the real people who first developed these investigative tools. Some of the scientists, like Dr. Bernard Spilsbury, a British forensic pathologist who was known for his charismatic courtroom testimony, are fascinating characters. In each chapter McDermid also interviews modern forensic experts, characters in their own right: impassioned, dogged and intelligent. They share highlights from their careers, as well as their frustrations—and even their failures—in pursuing criminal cases. 

This, unfortunately, is where McDermid's book falters. Her interviews with modern experts are superficial and uncritical. She quotes from the scientists without challenging them about their opinions, or seeking out other experts who disagree. For example, in a section about the difference between the legal use of experts in the United States and the UK, she explains that the British system occasionally allows opposing experts to come together and reach a consensus. She then goes on to quote an expert who once saw the prosecution case fall apart because such a meeting did not take place. The expert says that this "did no one any good at all," suggesting that the freedom of an innocent person was outside of anyone's concern.  

Val McDermid’s Forensics is not a work of solid scientific journalism, but it does make for an engaging read, offering an overview of the field for those who know little about the science behind the headlines and want a better understanding of the history of forensic crime investigation. 

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume - Fiction - Knopf 2015
Reading Judy Blume's prose again is an act of comfort and joy—meeting an old childhood friend as an adult and picking up where you last left off. Her new novel In the Unlikely Event chronicles through fiction the real events in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 58 days between December 1951 and February 1952, when three planes crashed around Newark Airport. One character, Dr. Osler, is a local dentist who is called to help identify the deceased.

The perspective taken is that of the children, which Blume herself was at the time and in that place. In interviews she has said she remembered some of the events, but that these characters are fictional. Blume uses fictionalized news reports admixed with real newspaper clippings and advertisements to bring us right back to a time period when girls who aspired to a career as a flight attendant answered ads that required they be white, between 5'2 and 5’6," and compatible with “just below Hollywood” standards of beauty.

Blume brilliantly and sensitively captures what it's like to be a witness to disaster when life is supposed to be perfect; a survivor, when the very foundations of what you've been taught to rely on (family, government, technology) fail. In the Unlikely Event tells the story of how a community comes together and individuals fall apart, and evokes the consequences of living for the rest of your life in the aftermath of a communal tragedy. The words at the end of one of the surviving children, "we're still part of a secret club, one we'd never willingly join,” will stay with me forever.